Can the Bills find a good player at No. 30 who can contribute immediately in 2021?
If the Buffalo Bills make their inaugural selection at No. 30 overall in the NFL Draft Thursday night, it will be the deepest into a first round that they have ever picked.
One reason for that is during their Super Bowl years in the early 1990s, the NFL was a 28-team league and the most players picked in any of the first rounds of the four drafts after Buffalo played in the NFL championship game was 29 in both 1993 and 1994.
But also, even as the league expanded to 30 teams in 1995 and eventually 32 teams in 2002, the Bills never made it to the NFL’s version of the Final Four – meaning playing in a conference championship game – until 2021 when they were defeated by the Chiefs for the AFC title.
Thus, they always picked much earlier in the first round, too often in the top 10 or 15.
But here we are with the Bills slotted at No. 30, and the challenge for general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott will be to find a player who they believe can give them first-round performance despite the lateness of the selection.
This is not an impossible task by any means, but looking at who has been picked No. 30 overall in the previous five drafts, while there’s still time for some of these players to get things figured out, it’s not an overly impressive group.
► 2020: Noah Igbinoghene, cornerback, Dolphins. Obviously it’s way too early to make a judgment on him, but he had a decent rookie season and played 286 defensive snaps, most of that on the outside.
► 2019: Deandre Baker, cornerback, Giants. Came in and started as a rookie but then it all fell apart. He was arrested in the spring of 2020 on a robbery with firearm charge and was released even before all the charges were eventually dropped in November.
At that point the Chiefs signed him to their practice squad and he got into two late-season games. He was given a reserve/future contract in February so he’ll have a chance to resurrect his career.
► 2018: Mike Hughes, cornerback, Vikings. He’s been a disappointment to date, a player who hasn’t been able to stay healthy as he’s played in just 24 of a possible 48 games and has only two interceptions.
► 2017: T.J. Watt, edge rusher, Steelers. All we knew about Watt going into that draft is that he was J.J.’s brother. Then he stepped into the Pittsburgh defense and was an instant hit. Right now he may be the best edge rusher in the game, having surpassed his three-time NFL defensive player of the year brother.
► 2016: Vernon Butler, defensive tackle, Panthers. Butler, as we know, was picked by Carolina when both Beane and McDermott were employed there. For the first three years he was a disappointment, never starting a game and making only two sacks.
Finally in 2019 he started to show progress and he parlayed that into a free agent deal with Buffalo. But last season he was a rather underwhelming part of the interior rotation and had he not agreed to a pay cut in 2021, he may have been released.
There have been countless success stories across the league through the years among the late first-round picks and one of those happens to play for the Bills – cornerback Tre’Davious White was chosen 27th overall in 2017 after the Bills made a trade with the Chiefs.
One can argue that White has outperformed his draft status during his first five NFL seasons as he has 15 career interceptions and has been voted to two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team.
Looking back at the Bills’ draft history, while we have to factor in that different people have been in charge, the team has a mixed bag picking near the end of the first round.
In addition to White, the latest first-round picks the Bills have made in the 21st century were running back Willie McGahee at No. 23 in 2003, and defensive end Erik Flowers at No. 26 in 2000.
McGahee was a puzzler because he had to sit out the entire 2003 season due to a serious knee injury, plus, the Bills already had Travis Henry who rushed for more than 2,100 yards his first two years including 1,438 in 2002.
When McGahee finally got on the field, he eventually overtook Henry and fell 10 yards shy in 2006 of producing three straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Bills. But then he was traded to the Ravens for two draft picks, one of which was a third-rounder that was used on quarterback Trent Edwards in 2007.
Flowers was simply one of the biggest first-round busts in Bills history. He played only two years for Buffalo, making six starts with four sacks, and he was out of the league by the end of 2004, having also washed out with the Texans and Rams.
Going back to the glory years, here are the four players who were picked following the Super Bowl appearances:
► 1994: Jeff Burris, cornerback. No. 27 overall. Burris was a solid if not spectacular player who started his last two years before moving on to the Colts. He also was a productive punt returner who averaged 10.5 yards in four seasons with Buffalo. He ultimately played 10 NFL seasons.
► 1993: Thomas Smith, cornerback, No. 28 overall. Was a backup as a rookie behind Nate Odomes and James Williams, then became a starter in 1994 and remained in that role for five seasons. Made six career interceptions and while he was never a star, he was a consistent, reliable member of the defense.
► 1992: John Fina, offensive tackle, No. 27 overall. A backup his rookie year but he took over as the starter at left tackle when Will Wolford left via free agency and stayed there for nine years. Again, never a star, but he played one of the most important positions on the field for a team that made the playoffs six years during his career.
► 1991: Henry Jones, strong safety. No. 26 overall. Sat behind Leonard Smith his rookie year, then took over the job in 1992 and led the NFL that season in both interceptions (8) and interception return yards (263), returning two of the picks for touchdowns. He was a nine-year starter who made 18 interceptions for Buffalo.
Those four players were picked during a time when the Bills employed outstanding personnel evaluators Bill Polian, John Butler, A.J. Smith and others. Given what we’ve seen from the new Bills regime led by Beane, McDermott, Joe Schoen and Dan Morgan, there’s no reason to believe they won’t find someone who can step in and contribute immediately to the Bills new-era quest for that elusive Super Bowl title.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.